The ads for El Pollo Loco’s shrimp dishes should have been a clue. Maybe it was the beer battered cod fish taco at Carl’s Jr. Without looking at a calendar, it is clear that Lent is starting and so is the fast food frenzy for fish.
Each February and March, fast food menus start to feature fish and particularly new fish dishes touted “for a limited time only.” It makes one wonder if the only reason those dishes were created was satisfying Catholics during Lent, who could not eat anywhere else? Do people buy deep-fried fish sticks, nuggets and shrimp dishes year round? Or is the selection of fish in lieu of meat perceived as something as seasonal as the McDonald’s Shamrock Shake or Baskin Robbins’ Quarterback Crunch?
Curiously, while every fast food chain seems to do some fish frenzy featured advertising or posters this time of year, it is not like fish is actually required on Fridays for Lent. The traditional thing is to avoid meat, which is why the Filet Of Fish sandwich was even created, and abstain from certain foods during Lent, such as chocolate or lattes. But today, with so many healthy options out there, there are alternatives for vegetarians and people who want to avoid the American fried fish dish tradition. After all, even In ‘N’ Out, the bastion of burgers only menus, will make grilled cheese.
Some chains use Lent (and presumably Spring break) as an opportunity to test new dishes. Depending upon response, the dish may stay on the menu or, like the Pollo Loco shrimp dishes, come back the following year. As Laura McGuire of Chicago-based food industry consultant put it in Brand Eating, “New fish- or vegetable-based offerings will not only appeal to those who observe Lent, but also attract seafood lovers and vegetarians,” and maybe create new regular customers.
Provided one avoids pepperoni and sausage, pizza works as a beef alternative for lunch, as does salads at many chains, such as Panera. But several other fast-food and fast-casual chains have regular dishes that work for Lent, Hindus and vegetarians:
- Chipotle’s: There are two options at Chipotle’s that work here as burritos, bowls or tacos. There is their Sofritas filling, which is a vegan stew made up of tofu, poblano peppers, chilies and spices. Be aware that Sofritas is not available in every store. Another option is a bean and cheese burrito, with whatever additional options are preferred.
- Qdoba: While they do not offer tofu, Qdoba offers quesadillas, nachos, as well as bean and cheese burritos or tacos.
- Shake Shack: Technically, the shakes count as vegetarian and pass muster, unless one gave up ice cream for lent. But, a better choice is their ‘shroom burger, which is a crisp-fried portobello mushroom accompanied by melted cheddar and muenster cheeses.
- Baja Fresh: While they offer shrimp and other fish as fillings, Baja Fresh offers a great veggie burrito with fresh peppers and onion, beans, salsa, sour cream and fresh guacamole. They also offer a beans and cheese option too. In addition, there are quesadillas and other choices too.
- Five Guys: Five Guys offers grilled cheese and a veggie sandwich as alternatives to their famous burgers.
- Burger King: While Burger King does offer the standard fried fish options, they also offer a veggie burger (from MorningStar Farms), which can have any of the regular accoutrements.
- Subway: This sandwich chain has the usual tuna sandwich, but also offers a “veggie delite” one.
- Veggie Grill: This Southern California chain offers 365-days of alternatives to meat in a variety of tasty forms.
These are just some of the options for Lent, which this year runs from Feb. 18 through April 2, and people seeking meat alternatives the rest of the year too. While the fast food chains all push their fried fish during their frenzy for Lent business, it is nice to know those who must eat out on Fridays (or other days) have nonmeat choices.
By Dyanne Weiss